The Martha Stewart of Gardening

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The lovely wife that is Venus will take gardening to a whole new level in 2010.

Yep -- thanks to her rather sneaky husband -- it's no longer just "tilling the soil" in our North Natomas compound. It's backyard gardening -- "high society style."

Since when did gardening become high society? How about when I said it did? Good enough? No? You want more? OK. I got more.

As I was wracking ye olde noggin earlier this month in search of the perfect Christmas gift for my model-perfect wife (we always take a solemn vow to not buy each other anything and then wind up breaking it in the most imaginative of ways) -- I ran across a posting from fellow blogger Daffodil Planter.

I've always loved DP because -- not only does she live in the God's Country that is Nevada County -- she has a certain "flair" for the art of gardening. I've never considered growing heirloom tomatoes to be a work of art -- but she takes that simple subject to a whole new level.

In other words -- Bill Bird grows and eats heirloom tomatoes. DP -- on the other hand -- turns them into a Leonardo Da Vinci work of art.

At any rate -- DP was highlighting ten great gardening gifts for Christmas on her blog -- when I ran across the posting for the Dianne Benson (The Best From DianneB) Gardening Gift Bag. "Dianne Who," was my first thought? Followed closely by "Dianne What?" Who is this Dianne person and why is she intruding upon my garden?

But when I saw the bag pictured above -- and began to do a little background research about Dianne Benson -- a mischievious thought zapped the precious few electrons that are still permeating my skull. This was the perfect gift for the perfect wife. Why not give the best that gardening tools have to offer to a lady that can spend hours creating magic in the garden?

And so -- Bill Bird made the magic happen with the purchase of the Gardening Gift Bag and a set of Felco Pruners (which are EXTREMELY hard to find locally I might add). Folks -- you're not going to find this stuff at your local Home Depot. Nope -- these are some of those rare tools that aren't mass-produced in China. Nothing against that "Made in China" label -- but I was sure pleased to find out that something as simple as a gardening trowel is still "Made in America" or made anywhere else for that matter (Felco pruners are manufactured in Switzerland).

It's not just the label issue either. It's the guarantee that when you stick this spade into the ground -- it's not going to bend like a piece of rubber. It's not going to snap in two like so many of our tools have done. It's not going to rust, bend, break or fail in every imaginable way possible.

This is "gardening in style."

As I eagerly watched the wife rip into her main present on Christmas Day -- I must admit -- I was a bit disappointed with her initial reaction. "Dianne Who," she said? "Dianne What?" But -- as she slowly fit pieces of her collection into the "Dianne Benson Leather Gardening Belt," I saw this little grin slowly blossom into a wide smile.

As she was fitting pieces of the collection together just last night -- she began to understand. This wasn't a Louis Vuitton purse -- nor a pair of Prada shoes (not that she wouldn't love both). This was something better.

The Diane Benson Garden Gift Bag comes complete with the following:

  1. The all-important "yard bag."
  2. The "Ultimate Trowel"
  3. Japanese Clippers
  4. New Age English Twine
  5. Never rust Lead Plant Markers and Magic Pencil

Throw in the Garden Tool Belt with the #4 Felco Pruners -- and you have a gardener who is ready and well-equipped for any garden challenge.

Check that -- and make it "garden in style."

Happy Day AFTER Winter Solstice Day!!!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

No -- it's not a holiday -- but for gardeners it should be. Lord knows -- I certainly feel like celebrating. The long -- slow -- gradual slide into the winter doldrums is officially over. It's time to start thinking about summertime pleasures again.

What exactly is the Winter Solstice? Well -- if you want the fine details in a paragraph or less -- the handy-dandy Wikipedia says:

"The Winter Solstice occurs exactly when the earth's axial tilt is farthest away from the sun at its maximum of 23-26. Though the Winter Solstice lasts only an instant in time, the term is also colloqually used as Midwinter or contrastingly the first day of winter to refer to the day on which it occurs. More evident to those in high latitudes, this is the shortest day, and longest night, and the sun's daily maximum position in the sky is the lowest. The seasonal significance of the Winter Solstice is the reversal of the gradual lengthening of nights and shortening of days....."

That last line? The underlined portion? That's probably the most important to me as a gardener. To me? It means "rebirth." To me? It means I'm counting down the days until I can harvest my first heirloom tomato of the summer. You've heard of the movie "End of Days?" To me -- the Solstice is "End of Nights." And that's always a good thing.

I didn't always feel this way. At one time in Bill Bird's lifetime -- I couldn't get enough of winter. All of that changed however -- when life with Venus began -- and the gardening gene kicked into high gear.

I've got lots of stuf planned for the coming year -- which I will spell out in every painstaking (boring) detail for you? New fruit trees for the garden? You betcha! New citrus trees? Why -- of course! Thank you for asking! New things to plant and take care of? New headaches? Yes -- and yes!

The winter blahs are officially over. It's a brand new day. Bring on 2010! Old Man Winter can take a hike...

Juice of the Gods...

Monday, December 21, 2009

And now -- without fail -- for Christmas I bring to you: The Good Stuff.

No -- it's not a bottle of booze. No -- it's not a bottle of fine scotch whiskey. Although I will admit that those are some mighty fine gifts to receive for Christmas -- it's not the "good stuff" I am referring to.

It's the type of stuff that gives gardeners like the wife and I the immediate urge to run out and plant seven or eight different varieties of apples in the Back 40 of our North Natomas spread.

Gentle readers -- I give you the good stuff -- freshly juiced Clendenen's Apple Cider straight from the farm known as Clendenen's Cider Works in the Humboldt County community of Fortuna.

I know what you're thinking. Trust me -- I do. "It's apple cider, who cares?"

True -- it is cider. But it's unlike any cider Venus and I have ever tasted. One taste of this stuff is eyeball-roll-back-in-the-skull reactionary stuff. To put it short and sweet -- yeah there are a lot of apple ciders out there. But the absolute -- most amazing -- best tasting cider I have ever tasted in my life -- bar none -- comes straight to our table from the Clendenen Cider Press located inside a ramshackle barn-storefront just off Highway 101 outside of Eureka.

It's pretty simple stuff really. The Clendenen family -- which has been in the cider business for darn near a century -- picks apples from an orchard collection located just outside the back door. The apples are then sorted (I'm told) -- washed -- put onto this conveyer belt and then cut and crushed into a fine pumice.

From there -- the apples are placed into a series of racks covered with a fine cloth -- and that's when the press is started up and the good stuff flows. It's then bottled and brought out front where it vanishes as quickly as the family can put it inside a freezer.

Why that fast? One taste will tell you why. It's pure heaven.

This is unpasturized heaven at its best. That's right -- I said NO PASTURIZATION. No sugars are added. No artificial this. No artificial that. No flash this. No flash that. It's bottled and sold. The Clendenen family practice hasn't changed one solitary bit since Great Grandaddy Clendenen bought the apple farm and started selling apples.

My brother first introduced me to this "heaven in a plastic jug" when he brought some it down for Thanksgiving. Little did he know that I would confiscate said bottle and not give it back -- despite his most insistent of choke-holds. A visit to the Clendenen operation followed less than three weeks later -- where my brother arranged a meeting with Clif Clendenen -- who had just finished up a batch of his famous cider.

The following interview with Clif -- who also serves as a Humboldt County Supervisor -- shows just how closely guarded the cider secret is:

Clif: "Who are you?"

Me: "A Republican"

Clif: "We haven't seen one of those in Humboldt County in decades."

Me: "Well, maybe if I tell some people about this fabulous cider, you'll get more of us."

Clif: "Don't do us no favors."

Tongue in cheek interview aside -- Clif was quite gracious in answering every question we posed -- and still managed to not give away the details of the "family secret." The famous Clendenen Family blend is a mixture of over 25 apple varieties according to Clif -- and the family concoction is much in demand. The best variety for juicing I asked? "Upland," was Clif's quick reply.

Venus and I bought enough jugs of cider to fill a standard cooler -- which we kept well iced on the way home and into the freezer they went when we arrived. But demand -- surprisingly -- was less than stellar. I found that even the most organic of growers and consumers checked their organic street cred at the door when I offered a bottle or a taste: "Unpasturized apple juice? Thanks -- but I'll pass," many of them claimed.

You'd think I was offering them a bottle labled "strychnine," or something. No folks -- it's just apple cider -- old fashioned cider at that made the old fashioned way. The sales job didn't work. They still ran screaming in terror.

Organic only goes so far with some.

I'm pleased to report that the Clendenen family operation isn't going anwhere. The Clendenen family cider press -- which has been in operation since it was purchased in 1916 -- isn't going anywhere either. They will keep pressing their famous blend of apples. I will keep on consuming it.

Visit the Clendenen family operation here -- and see the cider press in action here.

Our "Man" Hank

Friday, December 11, 2009

Say Hello to Hank. Hank's our "man." If Hank can't do it, nobody can.

Hank -- as in "Hank the Hummer," aka, "Hank the Hummingbird," aka, "Hank the Tank." This is the only feathered creature in the backyard that our four hunter-killer cats will run in terror from -- and for good reason.

Hank means bidness. He's not just any Hummer. He's a mean one. He makes the Grinch look warm and fuzzy. And "Hank" has made himself a permanent part of the Bird Backyard -- thanks in part to the well stocked backyard bar that features a full-sized and never-empty Hummingbird Feeder.

Nope -- Hank has it good in the Back 40. Better yet -- our fine feathered friend knows it.

He's right at home as far as our presence in the yard is concerned. In fact -- Hank will be the first to greet any human or four-legged creature that wanders into the yard. You can always locate him from from his distinctive "tick-tick-tick" chirp as he boldly greets just about any visitor.

Research tells me that Hank is a common Black-chinned Hummingbird -- with one major difference. Hank forgot to fly south for the winter and appears intent upon hanging around the bird-feeder -- rain, shine or deep freeze. I do worry about him somewhat because he appears to be all alone -- but those fears may be unfounded.

Hummingbirds are just part of the Sacramento Gardening lifestyle. The more garden you have -- the more hummingbirds you have. And Hank appears to be right at home.

He certainly isn't camera shy -- that much I can tell you. Hank will let me walk to within inches of his pointy beak and snap away with the digital camera. He seems to understand that I have invested in the cheapest digital camera known to mankind -- and also understands it takes at least 10-15 shots to get one decent photograph.

No matter. Hank the Hummingbird is one cool customer.

Although most of our cats couldn't catch a bird unless it flew directly into their mouths -- we are blessed to have at least one birder in the bunch. Precious means business with the unfortunate sparrows who get too close to the ground. She got two of them last week alone unfortunately.

But our little Precious has met her match it seems in Hank the Hummingbird. First of all -- Hank can spot even the most ingenious of disguises -- confounding that cat's best efforts. He thinks nothing about zipping by that little lady's head -- knowing she's always going to be two seconds too slow with the outstretched claw.

And should Precious make the mistake of getting a tad too close to Hank's Hummingbird feeder -- she is routinely dive-bombed and harassed until she makes a beeline back into the safety of the house.

Hank means bidness. He is the Tweety Bird response to her best Sylvester routine. Better yet -- he's the source of the best backyard entertainment any gardener could ever witness.

I do worry about him though. I know his nest is probably close by -- but since most trees in the neighborhood are still very small -- no matter where Hank builds -- he's in danger from predators like Precious. My fear is he's made his home in one of the many rosebushes around the backyard -- rosebushes that will be pruned back later this winter. Or he just might be located in a tangle of tomato bushes that I haven't torn out yet (hey! It's cold out there!).

I've always been a fan of hummingbirds in the yard. Mom had a feeder in our Modesto backyard for ages -- but the true hummingbird show came from my oldest sister -- Debbie. Deb's feeder -- hung near the back porch of her Kings Canyon National Park home -- wouldn't attract just one or two hummingbirds.

Nope -- Deb's feeder attracted a certifiable army. Better yet -- you could hear them coming from a mile away once she put the feeder out. If you were brave enough -- and calm enough -- you could stand right next to that feeder with thirty to forty hummingbirds whizzing and clicking past your head and one or two just might land on your shoulder.

We don't have that kind of show yet in our North Natomas backyard. But -- like other efforts -- it's a "work in progress." Hank likes it sure enough. Let's hope a few more friends move on in.

Precious is waiting.

DEATH to all Spammers!


I give up! The Spammers Win! The readers of the sometimes wild and sometimes wacky -- but always boring -- Sacramento Vegetable Gardening -- LOSE.

I'm sorry boys and girls -- but spambots have discovered the blog and are laying waste to the comments section. I'm tired of constantly deleting spam or spambot postings in the comments section -- and it's becoming more frequent now.

So -- I've taken a step that I've resisted up until this point. All comments left at the bottom of the page will require word verification now. Yup -- you have to prove that you're real now -- and not just some "bot."

The blog will still allow for comments left by readers who wish to remain anonymous. But if the Spambots get past the word verification step -- I may have to again reset comment posting to readers with user ID's only. That means no more anonymous postings allowed.

Sorry kids. There's just no room for Viagra ads on Sacramento Vegetable Gardening -- although I do wonder what it might do for my heirloom tomatoes.

On second thought -- no I don't.

FROSTY Lives Here...

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Not the Snow Man. No -- he lives somewhere else. Frosty that is. Somewhere -- where they actually get real SNOW. What we get in North Natomas is a hard frost. Yep -- snow falls in the Sacramento area once a generation.

What do the Birds get? Rain and frost. We didn't get any of what Garry Erck got up at his pad in Diamond Springs. Nope. Garry gets the REAL Winter Wonderland. He gets the "real" showstopper yard.

But us? Blah....

However -- the hard frost did some unfortunate things to our North Natomas gardening efforts. I would say the fall potato crop is probably done right about now -- judging from this picture to your left? What do you think?

Yeah -- the fall potato crop is HISTORY.

It's the same story with other fall and summer crops around the yard. Yes -- I kept half a bed of bell pepper plants around. Why not? They were still producing! Guess what? After last night? Not anymore. And that bed of tomatoes that I nurtured through Thanksgiving? Yeah -- it's given up the ghost as well.

Lots of work to be done. I see a well packed Green Waste can in my immediate future -- and perhaps some muddy shoes to go along with those efforts. It's just "that" time of year again.

It's the same sad story with most of the fruit and citrus trees -- plus other fall garden crops planted around the yard. The onions and garlic are anything but happy. The lettuce is wilting. The Baby Bok Choy has this accusing look on its face (at least that's the way Bill Bird sees it). The once bright green leaves on the Pomegranate tree have turned a sour yellow and are abandoning branches in droves. The roses are putting on their annual winter "Hasta La Vista, Baby" show.

The only thing that seems to be doing well are the artichoke plants. I'm not sure why they react like it's "fun in the sun" during a deep freeze -- but they do. They're pert, bright green and happy.

Venus and I didn't get around to covering anything in ye olde backyard. We were -- how do you put it -- on "holiday." Yes indeedy -- the most beautiful woman in the world and I drove north on Friday -- where we spent three incredible days in the Northern California vacation hotspot known as EUREKA!

What's that? When did Eureka suddenly become a vacation hotspot? How about when I said it was? That's the story I handed Venus anyways.

Although we heard plenty of warnings about this "impending" storm that was due to hit California Sunday night/Monday morning -- we awoke in our Three Star hotel known as the Red Lion Inn to a classic "Sun Storm." As in -- the sun was shining brightly Monday morning. There was no rain to speak of. Not even a hint of a snowflake.

We saw what we missed while driving home later that day -- and that's when my lovely bride snapped this lovely picture of yours truly. "Look at the camera and smile," she instructed. See how well I follow instructions?

The best part of our weekend trip? Other than the discovery of the Boathouse Bar & Grill in the Clear Lake community of Nice (Neese) -- it had to be that return drive on the Redwood Coastal Highway -- Highway 101. There's nothing quite like the view of snow-covered redwoods and a blanket of snow on the forest floor -- glistening in the morning sun during a leisurely drive down the coast.

Home again. I like it.

Our Winter of Discontent

Friday, December 4, 2009

They're dead.


Where? I don't know. All I can report at this point in time is that our Hello Kitty Beehive was empty when we checked it this morning. Other than four or five dead bees at the bottom of the hive -- there was nothing. Nada. Zip.

Where did they go? That's the $64 question boys and girls -- because I don't know. I can tell you that this hive was so full of bees this past September -- that the show they put on at night was enough to make anyone nervous. It wasn't unusual to encounter a mass of bees like this.

Venus and I had a strong -- crowded and somewhat aggressive beehive just two short months ago. But in the space of that time -- all of the bees that you see to your left vanished.

They didn't die (as far as I know). They just aren't there anymore.

The first hint that something might not be right in the hive came earlier this week when the new President of the Sacramento Area Beekeepers Association (SABA) came across a post on this blog titled "Forget About it Fishback!"

Let's just say the new President of SABA -- Brian Fishback -- wasn't all that pleased. And he let me know in the form of the following comment:

"Thank you for you kind words. It is warm and welcoming to know that this is how you treat people that you call upon for support. The fact of the matter is I obtain a lot of older, worn-out bee boxes, frames and tools from folks not finding the time or interest in beekeeping. Many of the colonies I obtain are infested, run-down and deprived by the time I get a call. So, what I providing is a service to the bees as well as to those who call upon me. I'm sorry that you feel this way. Maybe you can make a difference by holding an honorable position in the association as I do....Sincerely, Brian Fishback."


It appears I touched a nerve. I didn't mean to do that. But sometimes -- well -- Bill Bird just sort of rubs people the wrong way. And -- what is largely "tongue in cheek" blog writing -- is taken quite seriously. I knew what had to be done.

I immediately called Brian at the number he left behind to profusely apologize. I told him that I didn't mean any offense -- and that my posting was merely a way to poke fun at people. But -- yes -- sometimes my "fun" can go a bit too far. I also told him the truth -- that I very much enjoyed and appreciated the support I had received from fellow beekeepers this summer. Without SABA -- the Hello Kitty Hive would have perished in June. That's the honest truth.

I think Brian appreciated the gesture -- and the apology. At that point -- the talk switched to bees and I told him about my reluctance to break into the hive to check on the bees due to some recent cold and nasty weather. During the last SABA meeting -- I had received this block of what's called "Pollen Patty," which I knew the hive would enjoy.

Brian advised me that I should have noticed bees flying in and out of the hive -- which I haven't seen since that blast of cold weather that the Sacramento area received in October. I knew the honey stores inside the hive were quite strong from my last check inside the hive in August -- and I knew the hive wasn't starving.

But the lack of activity? That concerned me. It concerned Brian as well -- who informed me that "his bees were flying today." He also related a somewhat scary story: He'd lost five of his hives in just the past month alone due to a condition called "Sudden Colony Collapse Disorder." This is the biggest problem facing hobbyist beekeepers and commercial Apiaries today. Normal, healthy, productive hives suddenly vanish without a trace.

Why is this happening? Nobody is quite sure -- but a great body of recent evidence points to a destructive little creature called the Varroa Mite. Beekeepers also refer to this pest as the Varroa Destructor -- because it can destroy entire colonies in a short matter of time. Invisible to the naked eye -- experienced beekeepers can spot evidence of the mite at work. But hobbyists such as Venus and I? The world clueless comes to mind.

Following Mr. Fishback's instructions to the letter -- my first move was to try to lift a corner of the hive. If it moved or lifted easily -- or weighed less than 20 lbs. (estimate) -- I was "in trouble" according to the SABA President. My hive, however? It wouldn't budge. I needed a shovel to lift a corner of it -- and by the time I finally got my fingers underneath the bottom board of the hive -- I knew it was more than 20 lbs. in weight.

Good news -- right?

Not so fast. The next move was to take my hive tool and pry off the top of the hive that the bees had long ago sealed with a sticky substance they secrete called "propolis." They had done an excellent job of sealing the top and bottom boards -- which was another good sign.

But when I finally cracked the top open -- well -- I instantly spotted "trouble" with a capital T. I should have seen a small mass of bees rising to the top to face the "human intruder." Instead -- Venus and I got nothing. And -- as I peered between the slats inside the hive looking for a mass of bees -- I found nothing.

No signs of life. A dead bee here or there. No spiders. No hive beetles. No mites. Nothing. The hive was devoid of life. What I found instead were combs that were rich with honey. I have a hive loaded with pollen and honey stores that would easily sustain a hive through the winter.

But the colony is gone. The queen is gone. There was no evidence whatsoever to support a scenario where the queen could have perished -- and worker bees attempted to create another. Instead I found empty comb in some places and many combs loaded with honey and pollen.

So -- what went wrong? You've got me. I don't think it was from lack of attention or lack of feeding. The bees had an ample supply of food inside the hive -- that much is evident. They had a healthy -- productive queen last summer -- as evidenced by masses of bees that would hang outside the hive entrance during those warm summer nights.

Does this spell the end of our beekeeping efforts? Honestly -- I can't tell you that right now. It's just too soon to say. It is somewhat depressing -- however -- to lose not one but two hives in the course of just one summer. It's time -- perhaps -- to take a break and think things over.

Perhaps I should have listened to Brian Fishback's generous offer after all.

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas...

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The kid is going to be alright. She tells me she is -- so I have to believe her. Folks -- it's tough to write a blog full of cheer when someone I know, respect and like very much is hurting.

No -- it's not us. Venus and I are just fine. It's another blogger who I have come to respect and admire through the years -- and for good reason. She's going to have a tough Christmas season. Lord -- I don't want that to happen. But there's not much I can do either.

I'll be honest: I'm a SAP for the Christmas season. I'm a SAP for Christmas music. It's why I added the Vince Guaraldi selections to the music lineup. If you're anywhere close to the sappiness level that I am -- well -- it's music like this that can bring tears to your eyes. It is the music of Christmas past. The music of family and friends who we love with all of our hearts -- and who are no longer with us on this Earth.

Of course -- I know that not everyone is thrilled with music on the blog. Thank you Mr. Hoffman. But you're the only one who has complained. Pam Farley -- aka Brown Thumb Mama -- loves it -- and so do her children. She's told me as much. So there. NYAH!

There's not much going on in the Backyard of Bird at the moment. The Hello Kitty Bees have settled into a winter slumber. The tomatoes -- cucumbers -- peas and bell peppers are pretty much done. The pomegranate harvest -- while wonderful -- is slowing down. The hummingbirds are still fighting over that bottle of sugar-water in the feeder -- which keeps the cats active. Other than that -- it's a little slow.

But not so in other yards.

Look at that nice gift to your left!

These -- Ladies and Gentlepeople -- are what's known as Hachiya Persimmons. Not just any persimmon mind you -- but the baking type. And -- as you might guess -- these aren't from any store. Nope! The best persimmons are those that come from a neighborhood tree -- and that's exactly where these came from -- courtesy of a South Natomas gardener.

Yes -- you can say that Nels Christensen is committed. Or -- he should be (sorry Nels). I first met him when I started this blog several years ago. I was shocked to find out that someone other than myself was actually reading it.

Nels entered the picture two plus years ago when I managed to murder and entire crop of heirloom tomato seedlings. Plants that Venus and I lovingly tendered for months on end in a spare bedroom expired in a matter of hours thanks to a series of mistakes made by yours truly.

Nels at first inquired if I was interested in a "plant exchange." When I explained to him I had nothing to "exchange" other than dead seedlings -- he was kind enough to gift me with two starter plants: a Pineapple Beefsteak and an Omar's Lebanese.

Nels is one of those backyard orchardists that I really admire. He's got a near 20-year head start on me. One step into his backyard is like stepping into paradise. It's where you'll find fruit and citrus trees that are now in full production. You can feast on thornless blackberries that grow by the hundreds beneath a 15-20 foot tall Bacon Avocado tree.

But the star of the show? A massive Hachiya Persimmon tree located against a side fence. So -- when Nels showed up a few weeks ago with a flat of baking persimmons -- I wasn't surprised.

However -- that wasn't all he bought. Nels has been busy. He also brought another holiday gift in the form of tomato seeds. Not just a few seeds mind you. But ONE THOUSAND HEIRLOOM TOMATO SEEDS.

Egads. That's enough for the next 20 summer gardens!

But -- there's a catch here folks. And it's why -- in the spirit of the Holiday Season -- why I intend to share Nels' gift with all of you (provided you want any of this).

Nels is a big fan of EBAY. As he was looking at the site one day -- he wandered across a lot of tomato seeds for sale. Not just any seed mind you -- but seeds for every variety of heirloom tomato that you can possibly think of.

The seeds were offered -- in lots of 1,000 -- by a grower who goes by the name of Tomato Bob. Bob -- you see -- has quite the operation going. He grows over 600 varieties of heirloom tomatoes in Hilliard, OH. And -- as Tomato Bob's website claims -- they are a"small family owned seed company located in central Ohio specializing in over 700 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes, hot peppers, flowers, and vegetables that have been passed down through families for generations."

Impressed? But wait! There's a catch. You see -- the "lot" of seeds that Nels ran into on EBAY happens to be what's "leftover" from seed packaging efforts. According to "Tomato Bob," there are always a few extra seeds of each variety that get lost in "The Matrix" during the sorting and packaging process.

These seeds are then gathered (swept off the floor?), packaged and offered in lots of 1,000 on EBAY. So -- the catch here is this:

Bill Bird has 1,000 heirloom tomato seeds. But he has absolutely NO CLUE of what varieties these seeds represent. Could they all be cherry varieties? Perhaps. Could they be half Brandywine and half Green Zebra? Sure -- I suppose.

Point is -- I really don't know! Neither does Nels. Nor does "Tomato Bob."

So -- the offer to the gentle readers of this gentle and little-read gardening blog is this. You want free heirloom tomato seeds? I got free tomato seeds. You want ten? Twenty? Thirty? I've got them.

This is my Christmas present -- and Nels as well -- to you. Free heirloom tomato seeds. If you're interested -- drop me a line at with a return address and how many seeds you desire -- and I'll not only fill that order -- I'll take care of the postage.

Just don't blame me if you wind up growing 20 Yellow Pear plants.

So Many Herbs, So Little Thyme!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

OK -- that little "thyme" pun is just criminal. I mean -- it's just plain bad. Not only is it not "new," it appears that I've stolen it from a sign in the Bird Herb Garden pictured to your immediate right.

A sign purchased at the Dollar Store earlier this spring.

So -- not only did Bill Bird steal a well-worn pun. He stole it from a Dollar Store poet. Heck -- that injustice rates slightly higher on the "criminal" scale. I think a Death Penalty sentence might be in order here.

Folks -- we're making good use of the Bird Herb Garden this year -- a first for our "work in progress" backyard. This year's Thanksgiving Day celebration at the Bird House will feature more than just simple Bird Feed. Nope -- we've got something special going on this year.

Our turkey is currently soaking in a brine mixture consisting of various salts -- sugars and a BOATLOAD of fresh herbs harvested from the garden. That's right kids -- BRINED TURKEY is the bomb. This isn't the first Thanksgiving that we've used this brined turkey recipe. However, it is the first time that we've used fresh herbs in abundance for the brine mixture.

How will it taste? I dunno. Check back in a few days. If you see news reports of a massive turkey poisoning in North Natomas -- then you'll know someone's experiment went a tad "awry." And - yes -- I've put the recipe for Brined Turkey below. I actually got this from the San Francisco Chronicle a few years back -- and I've used it every year since.

It's that good.

I'm hopeful -- however -- that this year will be the best ever. Why? This is the first time that we've been able to use the herb garden in abundance. I told the wife that I wanted a large and diverse garden selection of fresh herbs. I wanted this garden to be packed so tightly together -- that you couldn't even so much as notice the dirt on the ground.

Here it is -- in it's glory. We're not doing so bad. I built the raised bed holding this herb garden less than two years ago. Venus took to populating raised bed with a variety of starter plants and seed ordered from various seed providers.

The Lemon Thyme in the far left front corner for example? That came from a very small cutting that she received from a gardening friend at the Contractor's State License Board where my beautiful bride works. The big mound of parsely in the center of the bed came from seeds that Venus sprinkled on the ground earlier this spring.

We're not done populating the bed just yet. Where there's a crack of space -- there's room for another herb. At this point we have a couple different varieties of Thyme, scads of Majoram, two or three plantings of Sage and the Oregano is populating the back left of this six foot long, two foot wide raised bed. There's more -- but to be honest -- I can't remember the names of the stuff in there.

Ask the wife. She knows. I just give the herb garden a well-deserved "haircut" every once in a blue moon -- and use the vast amount of cuttings on dinner or lunch celebrations depending upon the holiday in question.

In this case -- it's T-Day -- or -- Turkey Day -- otherwise known as Thanksgiving.

Some people might argue that Thanksgiving is all about football. Most of the people who make that argument are men. They do have a point. I tend to think of it as family and friend time. Venus and I cast a wide net for our Thanksgiving celebrations. No crowd is too big.

We put the brine mixture together last night using that colandar of freshly harvested herbs to your immediate right. What's in there? In what amounts? I wish I could tell you. The truth of the matter is: it was dark. The flashlight I took into the yard just didn't do much justice. I just "cut a little here" and "cut a little there" and this is the result: a colandar of fresh herbs from the Bird Herb Garden.

While it's true that the brine is mostly a collection of various salts and sugars -- we like to add a few other ingredients to give it a little "kick." For instance -- have you ever used crushed Juniper Berries? Do you know what they are used for? Mostly that berry is used for the production of gin -- both good gin and the gin that the wife prefers (it comes in a plastic jug).

The freshly harvested herbs and two to three cloves of garlic went into the handy-dandy food processor last night -- and then directly into the brine mixture. Guess what happened then? If you're guessing that our turkey brine turned a bright shade of herb-color green -- well -- that would be a good guess. Does this mean green turkey for Thanksgiving? Doesn't green turkey sound absolutely luscious?

At this point -- we're not sure. Although the actual recipe does call for some fresh thyme -- it doesn't call for the boatload of fresh herbs that we added to the mix last night. But -- my lofty opinion (and the wife's) -- you can never have too many fresh herbs. That just doesn't compute.

So -- the herb-green mixture is now covering this "plump and juicy" Diestel Farms turkey that had been sitting in our sink last night. How do I know this turkey is "plump and juicy?" Can't you read the label to your left? You don't think the fine folks at Diestel Farms would lie -- would you?

Of course not!

Our Thanksgiving Day "star of the show" is currently brining in a plastic cooler normally reserved for beer out in the GarageMahal. It's critically important to keep the Bird cool during the brining process -- otherwise you risk all sorts of nasty problems.

Brining a big bird isn't easy. There are a lot of steps to cover. It's not easy lifting a 25 lb. turkey either. But I can tell you this much from previous experience.

Brined Turkey is the BOMB.

You can access the recipe for Brined Turkey in the San Francisco Chronicle here. If this is your first time brining a turkey -- you probably want to stick to the instructions. But we also like to play around a bit -- and we have this year with the introduction of fresh herbs.

I also wouldn't follow the Chronicle's instructions for cooking a turkey -- unless you really want a rare or undercooked turkey. To put it short and sweet -- those baking instructions are for the "birds." Venus and I normally stick to Butterball advice of 15-20 minutes cooking time for each pound of bird at an oven temperature of 325 degrees.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Belly Up to the Bar Boys (and Girls)!!!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Some people might mistake this as a citrus patch. Don't be silly. If you've spent the same amount of time in Sacramento area dive bars as I have -- then you know what this is!

It's the Bird Supply of Margarita Mixers :)

Next stop: Margaritaville. The Improved Meyer Lemon pictured to your right is now in its second year and producing. Not a lot -- not yet. But this is just the start. Check back in about seven to ten years.

The point here is -- wifey and I LOOOOOVE fresh citrus. We can't get enough of it. There was a time and place years ago -- when a former roommate delivered freshly harvested lemons from a fifty plus year old lemon tree from her southeast Fresno backyard.

Best lemons on the planet bar none. No delivery was too large. She couldn't bring enough. Venus and I would set up the electric juicer (the best invention known to all mankind) and juice to our heart's content.

That juicing session would normally result in three or four gallons of freshly squeezed lemon juice. No matter. We would freeze a lot of it. The rest went into batches of LIP SMACKING LEMONADE -- and yes -- I must admit -- we did make our fair share of Margaritas.

As we sat together in that Citrus Heights duplex sipping Manna from Heaven -- the woman that I loved and I both vowed that someday we would have our own little slice of heaven.

Fast foward to North Natomas 2009 -- and Heaven is slowly on its way.

Of course -- we did plant some citrus at our first Natomas home. But you can't really plant much in a backyard that isn't much bigger than a shoe closet. Still -- if you visit that first backyard today -- you will find a Dwarf Meyer Lemon and a Dwarf Mexican (Key) Lime.

Wonderful trees -- no doubt. But they weren't going to satisfy our citrus desires. Not by a longshot. This is the sad truth about dwarf anything: sure -- it fits in a small spot. But the harvest is rather disappointing. Small trees result in small harvests and that's the sad truth.

That's why my wonderful wife and I needed the large yard. We didn't want dwarf trees. We wanted BIG MONSTERS that produce a boatload of citrus year in and year out without fail. We want the lemon and lime trees that will keep us pickled in margaritas year-round. We want a never-ending supply of fresh-squeezed orange juice. We want a tasty supply of tangerines and satsumas that never end. And we want it all right outside our back door.

Pie in the Sky thinking? Mebbe. But, we're getting there.

We've chose to populate one of the side yards as our own, personal, Margarita "patch." This little corner of heaven currently contains an Improved Meyer Lemon, Bearss Lime, Washington Navel Orange and the tree pictured to your right: The Dancy Tangerine.

Soon to come? An Owari Satsuma and another lemon. It might be another Improved Meyer -- or EUREKA! It just might be a Eureka. Sorry. Lame attempt at a joke there.

It is the Dancy that has done best so far -- although the Meyer Lemon isn't far behind. I found the Dancy Tangerine at Home Depot a year ago last December. It had just come off the delivery truck. It was LOADED with bright orange tangerines -- about 20 of them. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

Other people nearby spotted it too when it came off that delivery truck. We all made a mad dash for it. It's probably the only race I have ever won in my lifetime. I grabbed it first -- brought it home -- enjoyed that first harvest with Venus and then gave our tangerine tree a prime spot in the side yard.

I was a little disappointed when it failed to produce anything last year -- but this year? Different story completely. I was a little concerned at first when these strange green sticks -- devoid of any leaf cover -- emerged from the top of the tree and started growing at an exponential rate. But -- as it turned out -- there was no reason to be concerned. Those were new branches emerging and they soon leafed out.

The Meyer Lemon is current starting to exhibit the same growth spurt. I know in time that the size of these trees will double -- triple -- quadruple. I don't want small trees. I want monsters. Monster trees deliver a monster harvest. Our goal? Keep the neighborhood pickled in margaritas.

There's no question in my mind that the denizens of the Hello Kitty Beehive aided in this year's citrus production. We went from zero production last year to outstanding production in the space of one year. And -- as each citrus tree flowered -- the bees attacked each blossom.

We've been harvesting limes for the past week or two -- which go wonderful in a bottle of Pacifico or beef stir fry creation that we grabbed off the internets recently. I've put the recipe below -- and I wish you the best of luck -- but I can pretty much assure that you won't be able to duplicate this incredible taste.

Unless you too have a lime tree in your backyard. Because there's nothing quite like a tree-ripened, freshly harvested, Bearss Lime.

Stir Fry Lime Beef Bomb (I made that up)

Note: We usually double this recipe

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (about two limes)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon Sesame Seed Oil (note: you can use any oil -- but Sesame Seed Oil adds to the taste)
1/2 lb. steak (tri-tip works best)
Salt and ground pepper

Directions: Cut beef into long, thin strips and layer into a wide, raised bowl. Once the first layer is complete -- sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. Add a second layer of beef and again sprinkle with salt and pepper. Keep repeating this process depending on how much of this you make.

Mix lime juice, soy sauce, sugar, red pepper flaks and oil together. Mix well. Pour half to three quarters of this mixture over beef. Let soak at least 30 minutes before stir frying or just frying in a regular frying pan.

Cook through until most of the lime mixture has evaporated. Or -- if you enjoy a raw beef -- reduce cooking time.

The absolute KEY to this meal is the BEEF and the SOAK process. You can add the cooked beef to an already prepared salad -- or you can steam some vegetables and rice and enjoy it another way.

Whatever option you choose -- use the lime-soy-sugar-oil mixture you held in reserve to sprinkle over your salad or vegetables before consuming.

Good stuff Maynard. Two thumbs up.

The Lil' Punkin' That Could

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Yes -- this is a blog posting about pumpkins. Yes -- I realize that Halloween has come and gone. No I am not insane. Although the wife might argue on that point a tad.

Speaking of my lovely bride -- there she is in all of her gorgeous beauty next to her brand spankin' new Zutano Avocado tree. The Zutano -- which we planted and securely staked over the weekend -- replaces the Bacon Avocado tree which I managed to slowly kill over the course of 18 months.

Why am I putting up a picture of my lovely wife next to a Zutano Avocado tree during a post about all things pumpkins? Did you not read that part about insanity in the first paragraph? Actually -- it's because Cindy Shea -- aka "The Vintage Vignette" -- requested one.

Blog Rule #1: Don't let The Vintage Vignette down.

OK -- let the silliness end. Time to get onto more serious things -- like planning our Thanksgiving dessert menu. If you're guessing that Pumpkin Pie might be on that menu -- then you've read the wife's mind. But not just ANY pie mind you -- but a pumpkin pie featuring this pumpkin from the backyard.

This was my first year for growing pumpkins. An old high school friend who lives in Southern California assured me that if I had to room to grow watermelon and cantaloupe vines -- I most certainly had room for pumpkins.

Whaddya know? Dan Breen was right on the money.

Actually -- to be brutally honest -- our pumpkin growing efforts were mostly a bust this summer. The first one actually ripened up just in time for Halloween: in early July. We left it on the vine for far too long -- but somehow it managed to survive the hot summer and almost daily attacks from the Vole City that populated my "test garden bed" in the Back 40.

I will admit -- the Voles got to a lot of my pumpkins AND watermelons AND cantaloupes this summer. But I got the final revenge -- as the Voles grew so fat that they became easy pickings for our Hunter-Killer cat named "Precious." She was more than happy to drag fattened, rat-sized creatures into the house -- still alive mind you -- so she could proudly proclaim: "VOLE! IT'S WHAT'S FOR DINNER!!!"

The wife was -- uh -- less than impressed.

But back to the subject in question. The Voles managed to leave just two pumpkins alone long enough to survive. And those pumpkins -- in turn -- were harvested -- seeded and carved for Halloween! But as we were combing through our most sincere of pumpkin patches -- we stumbled across this.... this.... thing.

It was a pumpkin, yes. But it was still green! Can you carve a green pumpkin? Are there laws against that? Since we already had two carved pumpkins for the kids at Halloween -- it was Venus that made the decision. She issued a stay of execution. A temporary stay I might add.

Her thinking -- which was right on the money -- was that this green pumpkin just might ripen in time for our Thanksgiving Dinner Spectacular -- starring every annoying member of each family possible -- plus a few misfits from our Club Raven hangout downtown.

Sure enough -- as the days stretched into November -- our green pumpkin turned a bright shade of orange on the bottom. It was a color that slowly spread to the top. It's a process that continues to this very moment. The pictures in this posting are about a week old and still show a considerable amount of green color. That's fading fast.

As much as I would like -- I cannot tell you which variety of this pumpkin is. I know it's not a Dills Atlantic Giant -- so we can rule that out. That leaves two other varieties of seed that Venus purchased earlier this summer from Lockhart Seeds in Stockton. This might be a member of the "Hallow Queen" Family -- or it could also belong to the "Howden" Clan.

Since the bees were busy as bees this summer cross-pollinating the pumpkin seeds that were planted tightly together -- this could also be a cross. I suspect -- from the pictures I've seen -- that this is probably a Howden. But who really knows? Who cares?

So -- how does one make a pumpkin pie from scratch using a gourd that Vole City desperately tried to dine on through the fall and summer months? I do have some ideas -- which are probably wrong of course. Venus loves to point that out.

But -- if you're in the mood for homemade pumpkin pie next week -- and you're in the neighborhood -- please remember to stop on by. Unless -- however -- you're a Vole. If that's the case -- you've already had your fill.